Can You Really Be A ‘White Woman of Color’?

Race does not equal nationality.
Publish date:
August 29, 2013
race, Clutch, women of color, white women, nationality

I recently stumbled across an interesting essay by Ana Cecilia Alvarez about being a “White Woman of Color” that once again highlighted the complexities (and complete arbitrary and socially constructed) issue of race.

Although the two identities seem at opposite ends of the racial spectrum, Alvarez’s experience—growing up White in Mexico, but later being seen as a “woman of color” on the basis of her nationality and language once she immigrated to the U.S.—was both eye-opening and frustrating.

While Alvarez says she previously shied away from conversations about race because she felt her privilege as a White woman wouldn’t lend much to the conversation, she dove headlong into these issues by sending a tweet.

After Lady Gaga began appropriating Arab culture and donning a traditional covering, calling it “Burqa Swag” (which is also apparently a song), Alvarez tweeted, “What is it about young white females and rampant/self righteous cultural appropriation?”

Her frustrations garnered responses containing the brilliant and popular hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which caused Alvarez to confront her dueling identities.

She writes:

“The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen tsunami forced me to wonder which side of the hashtag I should come down on—as a white woman or a woman of color? For the reality is, both WHITE and WOC fail to define me.”

Alvarez explains:

“For all “official” accounts and purposes, I am a first-generation Mexican immigrant. I was born in Mexico City to a father who is fully Mexican and a mother who is bi-racial (my grandfather was Mexican and my grandmother is Anglo-American). I immigrated to the United States at a young age and, thanks to my grandmother’s American birth right, gained American citizenship shortly thereafter. So my claim to a Latina-based voice of color would appear to be legitimate. However, if I’m honest with myself, my racial identity is confused at best. Although my father is Mexican through-and-through, his family—my family—comes from land-owning ancestry of Spanish descent. And my grandmother, who grew up in Brooklyn, has blonde hair and blue eyes. As a result, even though I am a Mexican immigrant, I am inarguably white. This fact hit me like a ton of bricks even before I could verbalize how unsettling it was. After immigrating to Miami in my teens, I would participate in Thanksgiving food drives for the migrant communities of South Florida. There, the faces of the Mexican migrant mothers who received the bags of canned beans and dried pasta were unrecognizable from my own (pale, legal, educated, wealthy) face. In relation to them, I did not feel like, and never claimed to be, a woman of color.”

Like many immigrants before her, Alvarez was forced to choose sides once she moved to America. Although her early years were spent in Miami amid other White Latinos who seemed comfortable identifying as such, once she went to college, others reflexively put her in the minority box because she was Mexican.

She explains:

If in high school I held onto my Mexican ethnicity while benefiting from my pale complexion, at Brown I found that my cultural past gave me more and more “color” than I was ready to assume. When I met other freshmen in my dorm, I would introduce myself as simple, nondescript Ana. But once the long-winded and accented Ana Cecilia Alvarez Ortiz emerged, so did a certain piqued interest in my racial otherness. At Brown, in my mostly white group of friends, my cultural flavor, my bilingual ability, and my immigrant status tanned my paleness with an air of exoticism and afforded me the particular “voice” of a (supposed) woman of color. And yet I was a non-threatening person of color: a visually palatable and pleasing face combined with a cultural awareness that added a certain sensitivity and authenticity to an otherwise homogenous crowd. I was allowed to talk about race as if I hadn’t grown up white. I was allowed to separate myself from “those white chicks” and instead claim legitimacy when I donned stereotypically ethnic dresses and accessories. This shift became especially salient in my sexual relations. If in Mexico or Miami, my whiteness put me at the top tier of beauty, at Brown my fiery Latina side made me desirable because of my difference. Being aware that I somehow benefited from my cultural roots made me feel even more guilty and fraudulent when I encountered discussions about racism and oppression.

While Alvarez seems to grapple with and be aware of her privilege as a White woman on one hand–particularly by acknowledging that feminism must include the voices of all women, regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation–she also seems unable (or unwilling?) to parse the difference between race and nationality, choosing to straddle both lines out of convenience, calling herself a “White woman of color”–even though she is not.

Interestingly, Alvarez seems to unintentionally indulge in her own privilege by minimizing the concerns of women of color by calling for a “nuanced conversation that takes into account the various spectrums of race and ethnicity within gender justice, instead of lumping feminists into “white” and “WoC” warring factions.” Her need to “expand” the conversation to include more voices like her own (White women crossing the color line) seems to further illustrate the need for the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen movement in the first place.

While Alvarez says she has “empathy” for her “[women of color] sisters,” she tries to keep a foot in both worlds by choosing an identity when it suits her. At home in Miami or Mexico? She’s White. At school or when she’s speaking about race? She’s a “woman of color.”

Sadly, Alvarez seems to fall victim to the notion that race = nationality. And like many (particularly Americans), she seems to have bought into the thinking that being Latino automatically makes her a minority.

But here’s the rub: being White excludes her from being a woman of color. Period.

Having a Spanish surname, being born in Mexico, and being bilingual does not grant her “colored” status anymore than if I’d been born in Germany and spoke German would somehow make me White.

Reprinted with permission from Clutch.